The news that the chemical melamine has been found in three batches of milk products in Guizhou province demonstrates that the nightmare of the 2008 tainted milk scandal is far from over.
This despite the best efforts of Beijing to show that it takes tainted-milk seriously, arresting dozens of people and executing two after melamine infected products killed six children and sickened 300,000 before investigators discovered that 22 major food companies were lacing their products with the chemical to artificially boost protein levels.
Unfortunately for the government, whose 2008 food-safety bill was meant to put into place a more effective regulatory and risk-monitoring system, it seems that some unscrupulous factory managers are still cutting corners. It was revealed this week that some of the milk taken off the shelves in 2008 somehow made its way back onto the market. It is also claimed that local officials covered up the reappearence of tainted goods in order “to safeguard the good image of the dairy industry.”
Few can forget the chaos that followed the 2008 melamine scandal, which saw milk products disappear from supermarkets from Shanghai to Chengdu and bankrupted China’s biggest dairy company, Sanlu. This without even mentioning the devastating emotional toll suffered by parents all over the country who feared that their children had been poisoned.
But the melamine scandal also has the potential to hit Beijing where it really hurts. China’s lucrative export trade to the US, which accounted for over US$70 billion in 2008, has already been rocked once by the revelation last year that children’s toys exported from China were found to contain cadmium and lead, while in 2007, consumers in the US were advised to throw away all Chinese-made toothpaste after discovering that a brand found in stores in Los Angeles, Miami and Puerto Rico contained a poison used in anti-freeze.
In both 2007 and 2008 the US Food and Drug Advisory ordered a recall of pet food that they said could contain melamine, and suggested that Chinese-imported farmed fish could have been contaminated after Chinese manufacturers added the chemical to their fish food. The FDA ended up charging and indicting two Chinese nationals for their role in selling the product.
These cases, as well as Beijing’s failure to ensure that the melamine scandal is over, has potential to damage China’s reputation both internally and at home by showing that a new law, two executions, a barrage of arrests and even a major dairy thrown into financial ruin have not been enough to prevent Chinese factory managers from cutting corners, even if those cuts cost lives.
It is clear that more needs to be done. As Wang Dingmian, former chairman of the Guangdong Provincial Dairy Association, told state-media this week: "The government should be more responsible and avoid bureaucracy. You can’t just assume that everything is fine."